This thought-provoking post by Claudia, from lifeofcloud.net. draws connections between mental health and the so-called cancel culture. She suggests that personal trauma or other emotional insecurity contribute to unreasonable demands for the censorship of others. I think there are two key omissions from her argument. People who have been historically discriminated or attacked in their society are understandably and, perhaps, rightfully triggered by their oppressors. Whilst their demands for outright legal censorship may undermine freedom of speech values, their demands not to be belittled or abused in normal interaction, whether in the form of humour or tradition, are completely reasonable.
Secondly, some of the biggest cases of censorship are not offended individuals or groups but corporations and governments that hide evidence to pursue certain policies, sell their products and entrench power. The personalised mental health model of censorship fails to address, perhaps, the most pressing and important issues of corporate and governmental censorship for profit and power. Nonetheless, from the point of view of the individual and building resilience to hearing opposing views and being offended, which is important for any functioning society, I think it has real value.
Are happy people less easily offended or emotionally triggered?
This is the question that arose in my head today. It came into thought because I’m part of an email that recommends “banned books”. They’re not truly banned, but they often look at, are a commentary on, or question the idea of “cancel culture”.
And then I began to reflect on the people closest to me in my life, including my husband and some expat friends I’ve formed over my years in Paris; they are all not easily offended, they all hold an air of, “That really doesn’t bother me at all/Their opinion doesn’t invalidate my experience,”, and they all are anti-”boycott” and anti-“cancel culture” because they don’t see it as a solution to a problem, merely an emotional reaction to a trigger.
Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society. I can’t help but think that was just for the rubes, because she was smart enough to know better. Who made her clothes? Who grew the food she ate to survive? Who did her hair and make-up? Who made the microphone she said that into, and who recorded it? Perhaps most importantly, why does what she say matter any more than what you or I say? All of those questions can only be answered if you admit that Thatcher was part of and dependent on a vast, intricate web of people far beyond her family and friends, even if she denied it. We are all in that web, we cannot live without it, and I believe, contrary to Thatcher, that we all have a responsibility towards it. Pretending it doesn’t exist is only a ruse that is employed to justify antisocial behavior on a grand scale.
The last couple of months, with all the turbulences we had to get through, got me thinking about my people and country, and the world’s miserable state of being.
It seems that just as one fire gets extinguished, another arises. And what have the people been up to? Throwing even more buckets of fire to the flames. The confusion and anger and powerlessness, which this has provoked in me, got me following the social media platforms, frantically, in the hopes of finding any reasonable thought.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, when four coordinated plane hijackings and crash landings occurred in the US, including planes directed at and destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan, New York. The attack killed 2,996 people, including 19 hijackers. The toxic pollution in New York, created by the attack, would go on to killed and ail thousands of people in the coming years.
It shocked the world not just because of its brazen and mass violence but because it struck at the world’s military and economic superpower, which had never suffered such a terrorist attack on its own soil; the US has some 4% of the world’s population but accounts for nearly 40% of global military spending. There was an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from across the world and President George W. Bush vowed not to retaliate blindly, saying in a speech: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”
On 7 October 2001, within a month of 9/11, the US commenced a bombing campaign in Afghanistan, demanding that the ruling Taliban regime hand over Osama Bin Laden and his associates in the Al Qaeda network that were accused of conducting the attack and taking refuge in Afghanistan. The Taliban made efforts to negotiate with the US, requesting evidence of Bin Laden’s guilt and offering to hand him over to an Arab state to be tried. The US refused to enter into negotiations.
US and UK special force troops were in Afghanistan from September, coordinating with Afghan warlords from the ‘Northern Alliance’, to prepare for a ground invasion and occupation, to topple the Taliban rulers. The US-led war took place without authorisation by the UN and without real evidence that it was an act of self-defence, casting serious doubt on the legality of the attack and invasion. The US and UK would go on to attack and invade Iraq, in 2003, again, without gaining authorisation from the UN or presenting a real case for acting in self-defence.
On 12 November 2001, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan fell to the Northern Alliance and by the end of the year, the Taliban regime had been all but displaced and a nearly twenty year US-led occupation and war commenced. It ended a few days ago, on August 31st 2021,when most US troops left Afghanistan, after a chaotic evacuation of thousands of foreign citizens and Afghan allies and their families. Strictly speaking, the conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to be over, as the US asserts the right to use drone attacks to strike at ISIS or Al Qaeda suspects and other suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. A recent US drone strike at supposed ISIS targets in Kabul allegedly killed civilians, including 10 members of one family, of whom, six were children.
In 2001, I was in my mid-teens. Despite attending a reputable secondary school, having passed an entrance exam for the privilege to be there and being a relatively good student, albeit in freefall, I had virtually no knowledge of global politics. It did not exist as a subject at our school, until Sixth Form level, when, boys in the final two years of pre-university study, aged 17/18, could opt for a course in Government and Politics, as one of the three or four A-Level subjects that would ultimate dictate one’s university qualification fate.
Naturally, I did not opt to take Politics when I reached Sixth Form. Like History, it seemed to attract many of the extroverted and opinionated amongst my peers. If I remember rightly, there was a notable crossover of students who took Physical Education (P.E.) with Politics. I did take the less fashionable Economics and, perhaps, gained my first extended insight into the functioning of the wider world during that two-year course. However, the Economics I was taught, from what I recall, was based on theoretical models rather than reality and rarely, from what I can remember, involved deep study of real events.
I had no context to understand the events of 9/11. Around this time, whether it was before or after, I can’t remember, an Afghan boy called Saqib joined our class. I remember that he was cheerful, spoke quite good English and was a fairly good football player. Contrary to how he had been introduced by our form tutor, he was not quiet or shy. I remember the type of school shoes he wore, for some reason. I also remember that he was subjected to mockery, intermittently, from one of the socially dominant members of our class. He may, I vaguely recall, have been injured by that person whilst playing football in the school yard. Then, one day, that year, our form tutor announced that he had left the school.
Around this time, aged 15/16 years old, we had a course in Current Affairs or some similar name. I don’t remember many classes, so it makes me wonder if it was a short course conducted over a few weeks, rather than a full year’s worth of classes. It was in one of these lessons that I first heard that newspapers carried political bias towards particular political parties. I remember being confused and shocked by this revelation.
Our teacher conducted the classes as lectures and I had the blissful experience of sitting back and listening to interesting accounts about the world, none of which I remember, without the need for any work. That changed when a new teacher took over the class. To my great disappointment, this teacher, a South African, announced that he did not believe in teaching Current Affairs and proceeded to cover Shakespeare’s sonnets instead. My hazy recollection is that he said that he did not believe that he could teach what he considered to be the truth, so he would rather not teach the subject at all.
In 2003, my final year at secondary school, aged 17, the US and UK led an invasion and occupation of Iraq. They lacked authorisation from the UN but claimed to be acting in self-defence against the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which, it was later proven, did not exist. Other claims used to build support for the war, including that dictator, Saddam Hussein, was allied with Al Qaeda, were also false. It was later established from internal documents in the UK that Prime Minister Tony Blair and other ministers were warned by advisers that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The senior legal advisor to the government, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, had been advising that UK participation in the war would be illegal without UN authorisation. However, after a meeting in Washington DC with US officials in March 2001, he changed his mind and not long after, the invasion commenced.
On 15 February 2003, a month before the US and UK attacked Iraq, a coordinated global public protest took place opposing the impending war. An estimated 6-10 million people are thought to have protested in countries across the world over two days. In London, alone, as many as 1 million people were estimated to have joined the protest march. The global demonstration is considered to be the first in human history to oppose an impending war and is credited by at least one expert as having a restricting effect on the US and UK, preventing them from the types of excesses of, for example, the Vietnam War.
A classmate talked about attending the protest. I had known him since primary school and was certain of my social superiority, especially, considering his relatively weak academic results. Now, he was planning a career as a doctor, had long surpassed me academically and seemed full of confidence. I remember him insisting that religion was the cause of most wars. I tried to argue against the claim, feeling somewhat under attack, having had a religious upbringing, but found myself spluttering without any counterclaim. (Whether this argument occurred in my head or in person, I am not sure, as I was mostly silent at school).
In my apolitical world, the Iraq War public protest was act of futility or, even, vanity. These last years at school were an apparent acceleration of growth amongst my peers, both physically and mentally. Somehow, my peers managed to keep up and excel in the increasingly difficult lessons, whilst I fell further behind. Some got part-time jobs, adopted new hairstyles, dropped out or became School Prefects, taking responsible roles in the school community. Groups went to the pub after school and one classmate turned up, apparently, drunk for a crucial final exam. Those who had joined the Army Cadets at school were no longer just marching in uniform but leading with loud orders that echoed around the school yard.
This was, I realise, the last steps of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and my peers were adapting in preparation for their new lives at university, in relationships and in the world of paid work. In my limited consciousness borne of social anxiety and isolation, I remained in denial and only pushed along by time and the school system.
Some estimates put the Afghani civilian death toll at 71,000, since 2001. A similar number of Afghani security services and police have died, fighting on behalf of the US and British-backed government. 457 British personnel and 2,461 US service persons and over 3,000 US contractors have been killed over the 20 year war.
President Joe Biden, completing the draw-down of the war, which former President Trump initiated, stated that he would not send another generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan. He said: “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Both US and British leadership blamed faulty intelligence on their underestimation of how quickly the Taliban would defeat the Afghan government forces, which disintegrated in the summer of 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Foreign Secretary and some other officials were on holiday the weekend that the Taliban surged into the capital, Kabul, and effectively completed their takeover of the country. In truth, it was well known that the Afghani forces, trained and equipped by the US and Britain, lacked discipline, numbers and motivation to fight the Taliban, which itself, received support from Pakistan and had infiltrated the Afghan military.
The embattled US and British leaders barely said a word about the over 70,000 Afghan civilians who died during the twenty year occupation and war. Desperately, they sought to evacuate their own citizens and some Afghan allies and vulnerable people, such as journalists and activists, from the country, with the permission of the Taliban, prior to the August 31 deadline. Britain is said to have evacuated over 15,000 people, including Afghan colleagues but some Afghanis who worked with Britain remain in the country and face reprisals from the Taliban. Now the evacuations have officially ended, many Afghans are amassing at the border with Pakistan to try to flee. Britain is resettling some 5,000 Afghans this year and has said it will take in another 20,000 in coming years. Given the role Britain has played in the twenty year war, some have criticised the country for not taking more Afghanis and there is doubt as to whether they will fulfill even this. Neighbouring Iran and Pakistan have absorbed around 1 million Afghani migrants and refugees respectively.
British leaders challenged the idea that their own service personnel had died in vain during the war. Al Qaeda had been uprooted from Afghanistan, they said. They did not mention that since the Afghan and Iraq Wars and the global War on Terror, Al Qaeda and associates had multiplied across the world, including, in Africa, in the form of groups such as Al-Shabab, and that, in some places they have been overtaken by the even more extreme ISIS. They did not acknowledge that much expense and bloodshed could have been spared if the US and Britain and allies had attempted to remain within international law and negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban in 2001 and, at least, pursued the offers made and used violence as a last resort and in a proportionate manner.
I did learn the politics of power at school – to do as I was told, get good grades and otherwise, remain unseen, whilst deferring to the hierarchy of teachers and socially dominant students. This way, I avoided humiliation and bullying and remained, apparently, respected.
In History classes, which I took all the way through secondary school, up to the age of 18, I learnt about some of the battles for power and ideologies. As well as studying aspects of WW2, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, in later years, I took courses on British political history, which included, for example, the formation and growth of the Independent Labour Party, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, now known as the Labour Party. I learnt about some of the laws passed by the Liberal Party of 1906-1914 to reduce poverty and protect workers. I recall learning about the women’s suffrage movement. None of these events triggered any emotion or thoughts in me and I hastily forgot them almost as quickly as hearing of them. In my vacuum of knowledge and agency, they seemed to have no relevance. We learnt of isolated events and actions, often, without the social movements consisting of ordinary people that enabled them. To me, history seemed to come out of thin air.
I remember an occasion which, seemingly, was used to crush the idea that democracy had any personal relevance. In a junior year, perhaps, when I was 12 or 13, a school feedback system was created to solicit suggestions for school reform from classes. Our class submitted something and we heard no more of it. Some time later, perhaps one or two years, the Headmaster had, apparently, recovered our feedback and during a school assembly read out, in front of the whole school, our class’s suggestion that changes be made to the roofing of some of the school buildings to stop footballs getting stuck and ending an exciting game. I seem to remember the Headmaster barely disguising his amusement as he read it out and I recall my deep sense of humiliation and self-disgust for our collective small-mindedness. By then, I believe, we were senior students and permitted to leave the school yard during lunchtime and our games of football had ended.
Then, there was the education at home and via the internet and radio waves, for, due to my social anxiety symptoms and cultural isolation, I had little other contact with anyone outside of my family. My father ruled the home through force and social dominance, and I asserted my own role, whilst reading and listening to football and sports productions, in which individuals and teams received adoration for their own dominance. If I had a community, beyond my siblings, it was an online supporters’ messageboard for the team that I followed.
In the run up to the Iraq War, in 2003, British military intelligence advisers warned the government that a war would likely increase the threat of domestic terrorism. On 7 July 2005, London was hit by coordinated suicide bombings by individuals inspired by extremist Islamic ideologies, killing 52 residents and injuring 700. On 21st July 2005, a further coordinated bomb attack was attempted, this time injuring one person. British police shot and killed an innocent Brazilian man the following day, having chased him through the public transport system, believing him to be connected to the attack.
The US-led War on Terror, meanwhile, continued to escalate, including “special renditions” or kidnappings of suspects, detention without charge or trial, including at Guantanamo Bay, torture of suspects, bombing, drone assassinations in various states and, apparently, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, secret surveillance of the public was increased and those who turned whistleblower to raise the alarm to the public, were persecuted ruthlessly, like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.. Terrorist attacks by disillusioned individuals inspired by extremist Islamic ideology or attacks carried out by organised extremist groups continued to occur across the world, mostly, in non-Western states, with Muslims being the biggest victims.
On 22 March 2017, four people were killed and 49 injured on Westminster Bridge, in London, as a driver turned his car onto pedestrians. Two months after, on 22 May 2017, a suicide bomber detonated a device at an Ariana Grande music concert, in Manchester, killing 22 other people. Less than a month later, on 3 June 2017, a driver targeted pedestrians on London Bridge and then stabbings took place on the street, with 11 dying, including three perpetrators.
At this time, I was still living near London, trying to find a place in society and to address my social anxiety and isolation. I had passed through university by revising hard for exams and minimal interaction with people. When I travelled to London for interviews, jobs or social anxiety support events, I found myself oppressed by the high alert security atmosphere. Sometimes, my fears, as a brown-skinned man, were, at least partly, imagined, based on the stories I heard about undercover agents tracking people, interpretations of looks that I received from people on public transport and from the police. Other times, there was some clear basis to my fear, including a few incidents of harassment by police officers and extra security checks I faced, at times, at airports.
The reality of making a living and holding down a job was the next part of my education in politics. Unlike in school, I found that exam grades and certificates and sporting ability counted for nothing without social strength – the ability to engage and converse with other people. I learnt that I was prey, due to my social vulnerability.
In my subsequent spells of unemployment and depression, I learnt from radical speakers on Youtube, that exploitation and bullying was part of the structure of our societies and the impulse for wars. I was moved to righteous anger and attended some public protests for some causes and attended activist meetings. Soon, however, I retreated, finding that social strength was necessary too for activism and, whilst I was not prey in these places, I felt weak and valueless.
Afghanistan was supposedly the “good war”, especially, in comparison to the Iraq War. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is widely hated for taking Britain into Iraq. With Afghanistan, a popular perception is that the 2001 invasion and occupation was necessary to destroy the perpetrators and supporters of Al Qaeda, the terrorists behind 9/11. The media choose, even now, not to focus on the small print concerning international law, lack of UN authorisation and the alternatives to a full-scale invasion and occupation, such as considering the Taliban offers to negotiate.
The Taliban were quickly defeated but they did not go away, aided by allies in Pakistan, where Osama Bin Laden was finally found and killed, by US forces, in 2011 – nearly 10 years after the invasion of Afghanistan. Between 2013 and 2020, annual civilian deaths in Afghanistan remained above 3,000, despite the millions of dollars being ploughed into the country by the US and Britain to build domestic military and police forces. Whilst elections took place, a domestic media industry grew and female rights, such as access to education, improved in areas, especially, cities fortified by the West, it was not replicated in rural areas and, as proved, was not stable long-term. Women and children accounted for 43% of casualties during the war. ISIS, borne out of the Iraq War and the destruction of that society, began to take form and conduct attacks in Afghanistan.
It was apparent that the West could not win the war against the Taliban insurgents. In 2018, President Donald Trump made the move to commence negotiations with the Taliban. On 29 February 2020, a peace deal was agreed in which the US promised to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to stop attacking Americans. Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban formally began later without any real results. The new US President, Joe Biden, in April 2021, announced full withdrawal by 11 September 2021. Encouraged, the Taliban forces commenced an offensive taking city after city, sometimes, without a fight, and, soon after the President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, on 15 August 2021, the Taliban seized Kabul. With the US withdrawing, the UK and other Western allies had no option but to follow and a scramble to evacuate their citizens, some Afghani colleagues and staff and other vulnerable persons commenced, with the Taliban insisting on the deadline of 31 August 2021.
Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of the defence staff, said of the returning Taliban regime: “We have to be patient, we have to hold our nerve and we have to give them the space to form a government and we have to give them the space to show their credentials.” Whilst Britain is forced to acknowledge the need to negotiate with the Taliban now, twenty years after invading, a humanitarian crisis exists in Afghanistan. Over 500,000 people are thought to be internally displaced due to the increased fighting this year, the majority being women and children. Two million children are malnourished and one third of the 38 million population faces food insecurity. The UN estimates some 500,000 will leave the country in the next four months.
There have been a few unofficial “Freedom Days” in Britain lately. The most recent was 19th July 2021 when most national restrictions on social movement, association and mask wearing for reducing Covid-19 transmission were lifted. The following day, 430 undocumented migrants on dinghies crossed the English Channel from France, which was a record number of such arrivals in one day. The current Conservative Party government, which relies on anti-immigrant sentiment for support, responded by pledging £51.4 million to France to increase measures to stop migrants attempting to cross. Meanwhile, the government are pushing legislation to make it a criminal offence to enter the country without documentation to claim asylum.
The pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and refugee issue has raised some understanding and empathy for ethnic minority groups in the UK. However, it has not translated into political power nationally, as the right wing Conservative Party continues to hold power and social insecurity and some insularity fueled the Brexit vote to leave the EU, in 2016.
I look on at events with glazed eyes. Passing through temporary jobs in retail and data entry and periods of unemployment, due to my health difficulties, including social anxiety symptoms, I have built up no economic or social strength, only, it seems, emotional pain. I wonder if I’ve been mistaken in expending so much effort to try and integrate, be accepted and change as a person. Perhaps, I should be focusing only on survival and self-sufficiency, acknowledging my deep limitations and the cruel indifference at the core of my society.